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A Straub-Huillet Companion: “The Death of Empedocles”

The Straubs transform Hölderlin’s play, an introspective and emotional tragedy, into a drama of the living, breathing world.
A Straub-Huillet Companion is a series of short essays on the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, subject of a MUBI retrospective. Straub-Huillet's The Death of Empedocles (1987) is showing on MUBI from September 10 – October 9, 2019.
"I am torn asunder by love and hate."
—Friedrich Hölderlin in a 1794 letter to a friend
"Yesterday I was up on Etna. I recalled the great Sicilian of old who, when he had had enough of ticking off the hours, having become intimate with the soul of the world, in his bold lust for life plunged into the terrific flames. It was because—a mocker afterwards said of him—the frigid poet had to warm himself in the fire."
—Passage from Hyperion; or, The Hermit in Greece (1797-99)
The three versions of Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles)—the first finished, the latter two left incomplete—were the product of a bleak, tumultuous period in Friedrich Hölderlin's life. Like the protagonist of his play, the Greek philosopher Empedocles of Akragas, Hölderlin saw the world as a stage upon which the elements thundered and crashed amongst themselves unceasingly, bursting into ever newer configurations. At the time, he was buried in grief for a romantic relationship that had collapsed spectacularly in high drama.
In the aftermath of the abrupt and painful end to his romance with the married Susette Gontard—the mother of his favored pupil Henry—Hölderlin was restless and unable to find peace. Beset with unanticipated romantic sorrow, he looked out at a world where eddies and undertows of heavenliness and warmth had imperceptibly shifted character; they now overwhelmed his senses and drew him with great force beneath the breathable surface. It was as if his decisive change in fortune were reflected in the living, objective world which he otherwise found comfort in inhabiting. As he put it to his friend Christian Neuffer in 1798,
"I was so torn apart by suffering that I have to thank the gods for the good fortune of this calm [...] There is one hospital, it is true, to which a botched poet like me can honorably flee—philosophy. [...] I am not lacking in force, but in agility; I do not lack ideas, but nuances; I am not missing the main tone, but all the other tones of the scale; I have got light, but not the shadows. And all for one reason: I shy away far too much from the common and the ordinary in real life. I am nothing but a pedant, if you will. [...] I am afraid that the warm life in me will catch cold in the frigid history of our times, and this fear arises from the fact that I have proved more sensitive than others to every destructive force that has assailed me since my youth."
For Empedocles, the currents of the universe were chiefly Love and Strife, forces that smashed and rearranged the four basic elements familiar from classical thought—Water, Air, Fire, and Earth. Empedocles, who was among other things the world's first vegetarian, had, like Straub-Huillet and Hölderlin after him, a holistic conception of existence in which human thought and feeling were as inseparable from the wind and the air as were the fallen leaves that might be found caught upon it.
For all their reputation as great audience challengers, the central ideas and images of the Straubs' work—images that watch you, to paraphrase Serge Daney—are simple, impressive in the most literal sense of the word, and richly symbolic. In adapting this particular work by Hölderlin, one that underwent a transformation in its conception and realization from a more "objective" text into an introspective and emotional Trauerspiel, reflecting its author's own existential tumult, the Straubs display once again their canniness in isolating and extracting the essence of a classical text in the course of translating it to the cinema.
The titular death—that is, suicide—of Empedocles, never far from our minds given its prominence in the title, is Straubian to its core: Empedocles dives into the fire in order to vanish into thin air, to become the world. Like Hölderlin, who found his anguish somehow embodied in the outdoor spaces that he occupied, Empedocles' thoughts and thinking were to him as real and as tangible as physical sensation. His final act, therefore, was simply an opportunity to act on this obvious connection. Never mind the trickery of the gesture; Empedocles' goal was for the citizens he lived among to believe that in dying he had not merely become a pallid corpse but that he had been set, like so many Straub characters, on the path to reincarnation as another dot in the matrix of the universe.

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